Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 Women in Translation Stats | Part 1 - Publishers

Unlike previous years, I found myself digging into the women in translation statistics a little more in depth in 2015. After almost three years of crunching these numbers, small patterns have emerged and I've begun to look at the big picture. Not that it's always easy when looking at publishers that release 4-5 books a year on average, but the more you look at the titles that are published (and who publishes them, and what genres they fall into, and who their authors are), the more you do start to recognize recurring themes, recurring problems, recurring offenders.

This will be a major theme in these posts; I have decided to dub a certain class of publishers "repeat offenders". These are the publishers who have not simply failed to translate books by women writers at similar rates as men, but also have shown a pattern of failing women writers, consistently falling below the already-low average. My hope is that these publishers will now join the 2016 Publishers in Translation challenge and commit to doing better, but for now let's start looking at numbers.

Introduction and methodology

2015 overall men:women rates of translation

As always, all data on published titles is taken from the Three Percent database. This collection of statistics is thus US-specific (and only for first-time fiction/poetry translations of original texts, so no retranslated classics looked at or nonfiction titles of any kind), though by all indicators is also fairly representative of the translation trends in the UK as well. Gender assessments are done one-by-one, based primarily on biographical information (Wikipedia, biographical information provided by publishers, personal websites and pronoun use, etc.). Anthologies were labeled "both" authors unless specifically noted as being all one-gender (one collection was exclusively women writers and was included as having been written by a woman).

The 31% overall rate may look a bit familiar there to long-time readers of this blog, since that's the same fairly disappointing number we encountered in 2014. As we'll see later (in the three-year "trend" stats), there is simply no indication that there's an improving trend. Yet. Put as kindly as I can possibly phrase it: 31% is embarrassingly low. It is not good enough.

What makes this 31% even more shocking is how very fragile it is. Because as you'll soon see, it's not that all publishers simply publish around 30% women writers in translation and are done with it. If only it were so simple.

The top 24 publishers

There's something to be said that even most of the "major" publishers of literature in translation haven't released all that many books. In order to tune in more sharply to publishers who "specialize" in literature in translation, I decided to look specifically at publishers who had released 7 or more titles in translation in 2015. At face value, the results seemed pretty straight-forward:

Perhaps not amazing, but 32% is at the average, indicating some level of consistency in the field. Except... not really.

Zoom to enlarge (?)

When it comes to publishers crossing the 50% mark, there are only two: AmazonCrossing (with 65.8% women writers) and Europa Editions (55.6%). Both publishers show an increase from their last year stats (from 52.3 and 31.6% respectively), though it is unclear how much of that has to do with the fact that Europa Editions published significantly fewer books in 2015, while AmazonCrossing published significantly more (and I'll get back to AmazonCrossing in a moment). A third publisher comes close to reaching parity: Atria sits at the respectable 45.5%, compared to a 2014 50% ratio - solidly balanced. Wakefield Press also comes in at a reasonable range, with 42.9%.

But let's look at Amazon again. Last year, I noted that AmazonCrossing seemed to lap other publishers of literature in translation when it came to publishing women writers in translation, and this has become disturbingly accurate this year. AmazonCrossing published 48 titles by women writers in translation in 2015 (a sizable portion of which were part of a series of German-language romance novels), while the next 23 publishers published a grand total of 51 titles by women writers. And in this sense, it suddenly became apparent that AmazonCrossing is simply a statistical outlier. In essence, if we want to see what publishing in translation largely looks like, we can't look at any ratios with Amazon in them, because Amazon skews those numbers far too significantly. Ouch.

The top 23 publishers (excluding AmazonCrossing)

So I decided to look at the overall men:women ratio without AmazonCrossing, and then the top now-23 publishers. The overall rate drops from 31% to 25%, the top publishers drops from 32% to 22%. While AmazonCrossing is of course the largest publisher of literature in translation these days regardless of gender, no single publisher should ever be responsible for that much of the gender divide. Especially when the immediate conclusion to be reached is: Other publishers are doing very, very poorly.

For example: The next largest publisher of literature in translation after AmazonCrossing is Dalkey Archive. Now Dalkey has long been one of the worst publishers when it comes to translations of women writers (see here) and they have also long avoided explaining how in 2014, the publishing house managed to publishing a stunning zero books by women writers (out of 30 titles released overall). Despite that criticism, their 2015 ratio is not particularly inspiring: 16%.

If we continue down the line, fellow heavyweight "literary giant" New Directions did only marginally better at 20%. And these are the stats we see among the non-Amazon top publishers, for example: Seagull Books at 12.5%, Gallic Press at 15.4%, Pushkin Press and Archipelago at 0% (!), Penguin and Knopf at 12.5%... Even seemingly more aware or "younger" presses like Deep Vellum and Open Letter scrape by with 33% and 30% respectively.

Suddenly it's not surprising that the overall ratio is 31% even with AmazonCrossing. With so many publishers barely translating 20% women writers (let alone 30% and certainly not 50%), it's unsurprising that the situation is simply not improving.

University presses

I also found myself checking a new metric this year: university presses. More precisely, I looked at the publishers whose names contain university names or the phrase "university press". Why specifically these? Why not any publisher that is distributed by or partially funded by a university? Quite frankly, I know that as a simple reader, a university press gives an air of... authenticity, a sort of quality control highlighting classics and canon-worthy titles. How do women writers fare in this elite world? Badly.

Not only is 19% well below the 31% average, it's even below the Amazon-excluded 25%. And before readers jump to inform me that of course university presses are bound to translate fewer women writers because women wrote significantly less prior to 1960 (which of course ignores the countless works of phenomenal literature written by women throughout history but I'll set that aside for a moment...), I'll shoot this in response: What purpose do university presses serve in new translations, if not to seek untranslated, unfamiliar and forgotten gems? Women have written plenty of those since the dawn of time, and precisely fit the bill when it comes to eye-opening new titles.

University presses publishing significantly fewer women writers than men means one thing: they are perpetuating an all-male canon. Publishers are gatekeepers. They carry responsibility. So this sort of huge gender disparity is not something to be shrugged aside or ignored.

Now what?

By this point, it should not surprise any readers why I have challenged publishers to release their own internal gender ratios, and to publicly commit to improving them. The fact is that even publishers who have expressed support of Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) failed to publish a single new translation of a woman writer in 2015, and hardly any of the rest did much better. Publishers are failing readers and it is high time we recognize that there is serious work to be done.


  1. Thanks for doing all this work and distilling the results so clearly.

  2. Excellent summary, and something to be aware of even in my own reading -- I've committed to reading more Women in Translation this year, now I need more published!

  3. I wish you'd looked beyond the Three Percent list, which excludes important works in translation by women because they're nonfiction. My translation of Karin Wieland's Dietrich and Riefenstahl (Liveright/Norton, 2015) is one example: woman author, woman translator, two women as subjects of the book, even a woman editor. But a book like this is off the Three Percent chart.

    1. You're right! However since the database never claims to be anything other than first-time translations of fiction and poetry (which is why I specifically noted this as my source data...) and since it is currently the only convenient resource at the disposal of a non-academic/industry-person such as myself, it'll serve quite nicely to give us an impression of the industry at large. I know there are many individual titles that are inevitably not counted in my assessment, however individual titles ultimately have little impact on statistics of this scale regardless...

      However, titles like these absolutely qualify for the women in translation database! Definitely not enough nonfiction in the database right now.

  4. It would be valuable to have other statistics. For example, since American women read a great majority of the fiction that is published in the U.S., do they read more of less literature in translation than men do? Also since women constitute the great majority of book group members, what percentage of book group books are literature in translation? In other words, is the paucity of literature in translation by women due to readers or are publishers making uneconomic decisions that are sexist? It's also notable that Amazon Crossing literature tends to be more commercial (at least at home) than most other literature that appears in English translation, which, except for "literary mysteries," is aimed toward a more literary crowd.

    1. The commercial aspect of Amazon is actually somewhat up for debate since it has a fairly eclectic mix, but also not exactly my focus at this time (and I actually did note that one of the major factors in Amazon publishing more women writers seems to stem from a large set of German-language romance books they published). Other statistics would surely be valuable in order to better understand the industry and culture at large, but it doesn't change the huge disparity in publishing. There are MANY factors at play here, as well as many nuances covered in future posts.

      From anecdotes alone: I believe most book clubs read very few books in translation to begin with, yet in my experience there is actually gender parity when it comes to those books which are chosen, if not even a preference for books by women in translation (for example: Ferrante and The Elegance of the Hedgehog are two popular book club choices). My impression of the literary world and the blogging community shows a majority of women bloggers interested in translated literature, though this of course may be due to the prevalence of women in blogging circles overall...

      I do need to point out, however, that there is still no justification for such dismal ratios. Women read books by men, men should read books by women, and the demographic question is fraught with sexism in itself (well-documented by organizations like VIDA). It's important to look at all the factors, but the numbers themselves won't change. The only thing that can change is our recognition of "fault", "responsibility" and cultural baggage. We can change how we decide to fix the problem, but either way publishers - who serve as one set of gatekeepers when it comes to which books we have access to - have a major role to play in that change.


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